During the train ride back from Italy, we were loaded down with all sorts of gifts and foods to keep us fed during the long journey. The Italians riding in our train car knew we were American GIs and beamed with pride when someone would translate for us that all our loot came as gifts from Ralph's home village. As if what we carried wasn't enough, no few fellow travelers tried to add to our riches.
We had no thought of the upcoming crossing into France until we stopped at the last train depot before the border and an Italian customs inspector came on board. He asked for our ID cards and then asked where our sacks of stuff came from. He too beamed when he learned of Ralph's trip home but frowned as he told us he felt certain the French customs inspectors would demand a “small gift” from us in order not to confiscate what we carried.
In our stupid smugness, we hadn't even given it a thought. In fact, we'd forgotten all about financial matters as our entire stay in the village had been free. If we tried to offer to defray costs, we were informed our offers were insulting – however nicely it was done. So, we had exactly the number of dollars we'd had on the trip south. Fortunately, the Italian customs guy came to our defense and rode with us across the border into France. He took the French customs inspector aside and whispered with him. It was clear the two were arguing. However, in the end, two twenty dollars bills went from our hands to his and he gave us a paper with a big red seal that indicated duties had been paid on our goods. The Italian simply shook our hands and wished us a safe trip back to Bussac.
One of my favorite experiences in the village had been riding around on near little motor scooters. One easily cut in and out of the byways and alleys. I decided I was going to buy one the first chance I got. So, after spreading around some of the goodies with the guys in the platoon, we stored the remainder of our stuff and prepared to get back to business.
I've never been a frugal individual and whatever savings account I'd had was only there at Duple's insistence. But, the first thing I did when we got back to camp was to go to the Ameican Express Office to open a savings account. I actually kept my promise to myself of depositing 25% of my meager paycheck in the account. I even stopped the trips into Bordeaux to enjoy the GI bars and kept my sightseeing to my moped. It was cheaper. And, the French people of the small villages seemed far less disapproving of an ignorant American who did not share their belief in French superiority. Sitting at a café table slowly sipping a glass of wine and watching people [you can imagine which type of people] was a great – and cheap – way to pass an afternoon.
Like most things that happen when one is young and in the military, the chance to buy a motor scooter seemed to fall into my lap. I went to the Service Club to pass the time playing one of my favorite card games – Pinochle – and saw a note posted on the bulletin board. Someone was heading back to The World and had to sell his motor scooter. I quickly took down the note and got in contact with him the next day. He named a very reasonable price and I hit up one of my buddied for the few bucks I needed over what I had in the Amexco account. With a Bill of Sale I'd typed up at work, I passed over the money and was the proud owner of a Lambretta motor scooter.
It needed work. One of the cables had to be replaced. The brakes were worn. And the paint had a lot of scratches. Again, I managed to forego all little extras and saved up enough to go into the nearest town, Angoulême, to buy the parts. Unlike most of my fellow GIs, I had no thought of paying the first price offered. My moped rides had taught me that nobody in France ever paid the posted price! I bartered at length with the guy, actually walking out of the shop twice, until I got what I thought was a good price. [I later learned, of course, that he still took me for about 25% more than they were worth.]
The lieutenant allowed me to keep it parked at the shop so, on a Saturday, I was able to work on it there. It probably took me a bit longer than someone who actually knew what they were doing, but I fixed it. I also used sandpaper to remove some of the scratches in the paint and even banged out a couple of dings. I then took a can of bright blue spray paint and turned my new transportation into a work of art.
Oh yeah. I had no problem selling for moped for a few dollars more than I'd paid for it. A new 'cruit arrived from Stateside.
I poured through the maps in the Service Club trying to decide where I would go for my first trip. The Pyrenees seemed to be a beautiful place to visit. Doing some calculations, I figured it was a little over 300 kilometers to Bayonne and not much further beyond that to the mountains. At the Lambretta's top speed of 45mph, that was about a 5 hours ride. From there, a lot of side roads would take me along the flanks of the mountains to one place I wanted to see – Lourdes. A stop at Bairritz would also give me a chance to see if bikinis were as popular as I was led to believe.
Now it was just a matter of waiting for the next payday and getting an overnight pass – which isn't that hard when one is the company clerk.
Jusqu'à ce que le prochain post
[Have to make a confession here. While I became fluent in German and Spanish, I have never been able to fully get into French. I could understand a bit but probably never really tried to gain any fluency in it due to my personal feelings about the French people. I freely admit that I am not a Francophile.]